‘This Woman’s Work’ – Top 10 Influential Women Composers

Although in more recent years, women composers have been more recognised for their efforts within the classical music world, there is still an overwhelming amount of forgotten women composers. With a large amount of classical music concerts and music education focusing solely on the output of the ‘great’ male composers, there is often very little, if any at all, on their ‘great’ female counterparts. Over the course of history, women composers have been essential to the development of musical composition, and these contributions should never be underestimated or undervalued. Music should be celebrated for the music itself, not based on the gender that composed it. This list reveals my top ten influential women composers (in no particular order!).

1. Judith Weir (1954-present) 

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As well as being one of the most celebrated female composer in the present day, Judith Weir (CBE) is also the current Master of the Queen’s Music. Weir has had a fruitful career in music, from being the resident composer at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra, to having her works premiered around the world. 2011 saw Weir’s piece Stars, Night, Music and Light open the BBC Proms – a first for a woman composer.

Recommended Work: Stars, Night, Music and Light (2011)

2. Amy Beach (1867-1944) 

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5 September 2017 marked Amy Beach’s 150th birthday, but sadly none of her music was programmed to celebrate this. Beach was, and still is, one of the most prolific women composers, due to her large output of music, and her success during her lifetime. Beach is often described as an emblem or icon women in the arts, and her legacy still lives on strong today.

Recommended Work: Piano Concerto in C# Minor (1899)


3. Tania León (1943-Present) 

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Cuban-born composer Tania León is highly regarded in the American-Latino classical music scene. Her influential work is highlighted through her compositions, conducting, educating and advising within the arts. As well as her large catalogue of compositions, León was also awarded the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. Whether you like film music, opera, chamber music or vocal music, there will be something for you in León’s archive of compositions.

Recommended Work: Saoko (2008)


4. Francesca Caccini (1587-1640) 

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As the first woman to ever publish an opera, 17th Century Italian composer Francesca Caccini has very much earned her position on this list. Although a fair amount of her music has sadly been lost, her first large volume of music published – Il primo libro delle musiche – has survived. Throughout her life Caccini composed both sacred and secular music for courts around Italy and Europe – making her one of the most successful women composers of her time.


Recommended Work: Lasciatemi Qui Solo (1618)


5. Tansy Davies (1973-Present) 

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Listed as one of the most influential people in The Evening Standard (2015), Tansy Davies is an icon for young women entering the world of composition. Her works have been premiered around the world in prestigious concert halls and festivals, such as the BBC Proms, Aldeburgh Festival and the Barbican concert hall. Davies colourful contemporary style often incorporates various styles to create new exciting hybrid genres.

Recommended Work: neon (2004)

6. Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

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Known as one of the most influential composition teachers of the 20th Century, Nadia Boulanger was a very popular musician around the world. Although she had a fruitful compositional output, Boulanger focused her efforts on educating. Some of her students included Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones and Daniel Barenboim – proving that behind great men, is an even greater woman!

Recommended Work: Fantasie variée, piano, orchestra (1912)


7. Kaija Saariaho (1952-Present) 

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Finnish-born composer, Kaija Saariaho, is most well-known for her works that used computer-assisted techniques. She has worked extensively with live electronics and orchestras; to which she focuses on textural expression. Saariaho is also known for her opera works and in 2008 she was awarded the American ‘Musician of the Year’ award. Her works are exciting, unique and adventurous, which is why Saariaho is on my list!

Recommended Work: Laterna Magica (2009)

8. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

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Remembered as a prolific composer and performer, Clara Schumann is perhaps one of the most well-known composers on this list. During her marriage to composer Robert Schumann, Clara’s compositional output was minimal. However, after his death in 1856, Clara began touring around Europe, both performing and premiering her own works. Her 61-year musical career was an incredible achievement in the 19th Century, and her legacy still stands strong today.

Recommended Work: Three Romances for Violin and Piano (1853)

9. Keiko Abe (1937-Present) 

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Abe is known for her extensive contribution to the designing, building, composing and performing tuned percussion instruments – most notably the marimba. With over 80 works solely for tuned percussion, her works have become standard repertoire. Her improvisation-based compositional style is very popular both in Japan and around the world.

Recommended Work: The Wave Impressions Concerto for Marimba (2002)

10. Ethel Symth (1858-1944)

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Last, but certainly not least, is the incomparable Ethel Smyth. Although her family were very unhappy for Smyth to become a composer, however she was determined, and ended up studying at Leipzig Conservatory. Most will probably know Smyth for her membership in the women’s suffrage movement, and for her contribution to writing and music she was awarded a DBE in 1922 – the first female composer to be awarded a damehood.

Recommended Work: The Wreckers Overture (1902-03)

Alex Burns 2017 ©





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